The Very First Time In The World

What is it that trout fishermen are really trying to capture?

Field & Stream Online Editors

Most evenings, in a sluggish after-dinner torpor, I park my carcass in front of the tube for a while and tie flies, half listening to whatever's on. A few nights ago, though, I set down the bobbin during a documentary about a small tribe isolated in the jungles of New Guinea or Borneo. I didn't catch just where, as the Australian anthropologist talking on camera was not nearly as interesting as the scene taking place just behind him. A young woman, outrageously and marvelously painted, sat on the ground in front of a small boy, no doubt her son. There, in the middle of a leafy rain forest, half a planet away and a cultural distance measured in light-years, the two were engrossed in what was quite unmistakably a version of peek-a-boo. The child, like children everywhere, shivered with anticipation at each "peek," and dissolved into thrill and delight at every "boo," laughing each time as though he'd never seen such a thing before, as though it were the first time it had ever happened in the world.

It is no wonder that fishing-a sport in which the element of surprise is intrinsic-holds such appeal. The love of surprise is planted deep in the human heart, that strange and fertile soil where passions grow.

I, too, grew up in a heartland of sorts, the rich agricultural country of the upper Midwest. By the time I could hold up a cane pole without tipping over, I was fishing for chub and dace, carp and suckers, and thought the world a perfect place. It grew less so, though, as I learned to read. In books and magazines, I first discovered trout, and then flyfishing, and they seemed exotic and beautiful, made for each other as well as for me. While by day I still fished for whatever would bite, at night, like Thoreau, I dreamed of trout fishing. But trout, as everyone knew, lived in the mountains, which for me were as functionally remote as New Guinea or Borneo. And throughout my early teens, I pitied myself the butt of some cruel genetic prank, conceived with trout and fly rods in my soul, then parachuted to earth amid the endless cornfields and cows of northern Illinois. I began to feel about flyfishing for trout like I felt about getting my first date-that I would grow old and die without ever knowing what it was all about.

But the true fanatic knows only the limits of his own fanaticism, and I resolved that should opportunity ever knock, no trout in the history of angling would be better prepared for. I taught myself to tie flies long before I ever owned a fly rod. The first fly I ever dressed-perhaps destined for one in farm country-was a very old pattern called the "Cowdung." It took me nearly a week, and though the finished product resembled its name with uncanny fidelity, I kept at it. I tied more flies, read books, and studied tackle catalogs, letting the tail wag the dog because I had no other choice. It wasn't the real thing, but it was close enough to keep the idea of trout fishing burning in my imagination, a small, blue pilot light just waiting to fire up the burners the moment life gave it the juice.

It happened without any warning, in the form of an accidental bit of intelligence about a small spring creek and some brown trout just two hours away in the hilly country of southwest Wisconsin. I set out to get a look at my first trout stream and got instead the second-biggest surprise of my angling life-there was not one spring creek there, but hundreds of them, scattered over an area of about 10,000 square miles. And from that very first trip, I fished those limestone streams as though every time would be my last, taking off before daybreak and flaming out in late afternoon, too exhausted to make another cast.

For a time, I fished bait and hardware. I had acquired a fly rod by then, a horrible, solid-fiberglass axe handle that I greatly admired and packed along on every trip, lovingly bundled in its warped cardboard tube. Which is pretty much where it stayed. Unreqted longing, I discovered, is sometimes easier to manage than desire fulfilled. Despite my reading and study and careful preparations, I'd failed to appreciate that vast gap between theory and practice and could scarcely bring myself to use the rod, fearful of the crushing disappointment that would inevitably follow. On rare occasions, after a morning spent soaking worms, I would hesitantly rig the rod in the afternoon, thrash around for half an hour, and lose some flies, my only reward the skeptic's grim satisfaction of seeing his direst predictions come true. Reality has a way of giving the lie to our dreams.

I'm still not sure what possessed me one blistering August day to string up that rug beater on the most difficult of all the spring creeks I fished, its shallow runs diamond clear over pale gravel, the little corner pools a deep aquamarine that glowed under the afternoon sun as though lit from within. The trout were tough, and I'd rarely caught much here, even on bait. But sometimes the fool is served by his folly. I waded to the tail of a small bend and stood hunched over, motionless, for a full 15 minutes, picking out a snarl in my leader from some earlier tragedy, inadvertently resting the water ahead. Sorted out at last, I took a shot at the head of the bend and collapsed the cast on the water in a gruesome web of coiled line. The wet fly, a Black Gnat that I'd tied myself, glided out from beneath this heap of linguini, drag-free with the unintended slack.

The trout struck the fly in an unnecessarily violent slash-and-turn rise that left us mutually and completely astonished. Never once had I seen such a thing. The thrill was stunning and electric. I meant to have that fish and did, a foot-long, amber-colored brown trout that I killed and cleaned, and when I laid open the flaps of its belly, the translucent orange flesh glistened like a slice of ripe cantaloupe. I couldn't stop smiling and kept looking down at that fish as though it might disappear.

It was what I had hoped and waited and readied myself for, but you cannot, by definition, prepare yourself for surprise. And even now, thousands of fish later, the surface take of a trout still generates this same sensation, albeit in slightly lower voltages. What else is there, in the end, to fish for? Whether you try or not, you will one day land the largest trout of your life, or the most difficult, or catch the most you will ever catch in a day. You will probably know when it happens, and if your fishing is propelled only by more or bigger, what then? You've come to the end of the thing; another cast is pointless.

Inside the skin of every trout you catch lurks that very first one, and that, I think, is what you fish for each time. It is not some attempt to recapture a lost youth. Rather, you keep fishing to re-create that original sense of wonder, to experience again what is miraculous in life, as though it were the first time it had ever happened in the world. About the Artist
This month's cover image, as well as the paintings of fish and angling gear that appear with the trout stories in this issue, are by Connecticut artist James Prosek, who is something of a trout story himself.

Born in 1975 in Easton, Prosek still lives in his hometown, close to the reservoir where he caught his first trout when he was 9 years old. Although a friend first brought him fishing, Prosek's naturalist father first introduced him to the works of John James Audubon, whose paintings of birds in the early 1800s are the standard to which much wildlife artwork is held today.

Prosek loved fishing, and a warden who befriended him taught him much about the outdoors, but Prosek didn't realize that trout would be central to his future until his father showed him an article in Yankee magazine about the blueback trout of Maine.

"I didn't even know that the species existed, and I wanted to learn more, but I couldn't find any book that covered all the trout in North America," says Prosek, who was 13 at the time.

That missing title eventually led to Prosek's landmark book Trout: An Illustrated History, which was published by Knopf in 1996--one year before Prosek received his B.A. degree in English from Yale University. Inspired by Audubon--who shot many of the birds he painted to better capture the details--Prosek traveled thousands of miles to research, fish for, and paint watercolors of every trout subspecies on the continent.

Prosek's second book, Joe and Me (William Morrow & Co.), was about his relationship with his warden friend. The Complete Angler (HarperCollins) and Early Love and Brook Trout (The Lyons Press) followed soon after. His fifth book, due out later this year, is tentatively titled Angling the 41st Parallel. The premise: to fish the trout waters across the globe that intersect the latitude at which his hometown is located.

Prosek also sings and plays rhythm guitar and harmonica for Troutband, a folksy blues-rock group that he modestly describes as a "coffeehouse band" that originated at Yale. But the band's CD, All Wet, is professionally done--from the music and mastering down to the paintings of twin brown trout on the disc.

Has anyone ever called Prosek a modern Renaissance man? "No," he admits. "But I don't think I'm going to business school any time soon."

Don't be fooled; Prosek has his own Web site. If you haven't already guessed its name, go to www.troutsite.com.
--Mike Toth blueback trout of Maine.

"I didn't even know that the species existed, and I wanted to learn more, but I couldn't find any book that covered all the trout in North America," says Prosek, who was 13 at the time.

That missing title eventually led to Prosek's landmark book Trout: An Illustrated History, which was published by Knopf in 1996--one year before Prosek received his B.A. degree in English from Yale University. Inspired by Audubon--who shot many of the birds he painted to better capture the details--Prosek traveled thousands of miles to research, fish for, and paint watercolors of every trout subspecies on the continent.

Prosek's second book, Joe and Me (William Morrow & Co.), was about his relationship with his warden friend. The Complete Angler (HarperCollins) and Early Love and Brook Trout (The Lyons Press) followed soon after. His fifth book, due out later this year, is tentatively titled Angling the 41st Parallel. The premise: to fish the trout waters across the globe that intersect the latitude at which his hometown is located.

Prosek also sings and plays rhythm guitar and harmonica for Troutband, a folksy blues-rock group that he modestly describes as a "coffeehouse band" that originated at Yale. But the band's CD, All Wet, is professionally done--from the music and mastering down to the paintings of twin brown trout on the disc.

Has anyone ever called Prosek a modern Renaissance man? "No," he admits. "But I don't think I'm going to business school any time soon."

Don't be fooled; Prosek has his own Web site. If you haven't already guessed its name, go to www.troutsite.com.
--Mike Toth